Second Sight - Is the Web a primary opinion former?
It's funny how the addition of "the Internet" to a news story can impact the underlying reality - as if the Internet itself is to blame for something bad. Take, as an example, the news stories that came from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's recent report on the impact of neighbourhood information sites such as upmystreet.com.
The report's basic concern was that people use websites to make strategic decisions about where to live, and that such decisions mean people with similar tastes and preferences end up being more concentrated. This leads to fears about the digital divide, because Web-literate consumers have access to data (such as crime rates) that the Web-illiterate do not.
The researchers point out that there has been an overall trend for geographic areas to become less diverse over recent years.
This is true, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with a site like upmystreet.com or, indeed, any Internet service: it's because of us.
It's been known for a long time that if you give people the freedom to move where they like, then some form of segregation will arise.
In 1978, Thomas Schelling published a groundbreaking book called Micromotives and Macrobehaviour in which he demonstrated how the group-level consequences of individual decisions can be counterintuitive.
Schelling began to experiment with computer models of urban behaviour and used them to study racial segregation in the US. What he found was that segregation does not necessarily result from bigotry.
Simulations show that people who do not consider themselves to be racist end up in racially-segregated neighbourhoods as an inevitable consequence of the bias that people have for living with people similar to themselves. A person who is not racist may still have slight probability balance (even though it may be only 51-49, say) in favour of living next door to someone like themselves. Over time, if you allow free movement, this leads to the "emergent behaviour" of loss of diversity. People who aren't bigots end up in segregated areas - whether that's segregated by race, class or whatever.
It may well be a problem in social and cultural terms - frankly, I'm not qualified to comment - but if it is, it's not a problem caused by the Internet.
I don't think I would make a choice between buying a house in Street A or Street B because one of them has lower car thefts: car thefts would merely be a factor in a whole spectrum of considerations, a spectrum that would be evaluated by driving around, viewing properties, looking in local papers and so on. It's entirely believable that the Web-literate save time and effort by doing this online, but to blame the Web for the shape of the communities that arise is a bit of a stretch.
People from St George's Hill in Weybridge do not avoid moving to Moss Side in Manchester because a Website tells them anything about average income or the availability of local plumbers. They will find this out from themselves and from their friends. The Internet simply makes it more efficient for them to gather relevant data - which is sort of what it's for.
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